I’ve been accused of being an extreme centrist. Or was it a centrist extremist? I can’t exactly remember. But as far as I could make out, the point of the accusation was that this blog is just too balanced, that I bend over so far backwards in my attempts to be even that all I ever say is ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’, relentlessly occupying the middle ground, and refusing to take a firm stand on anything. Russia isn’t the evil dictatorship it’s made out to be, but it’s not all warm hugs and cuddles either. The war in Ukraine isn’t just Russian aggression, it’s a civil war, but the Russians are in it up to their necks regardless. That sort of thing.
The same accusation might plausibly also be laid against Richard Sakwa of the University of Kent in the UK. Sakwa is one of the most prominent Russia experts in the English-speaking world, being the author of numerous books on Russian politics, including astandard undergraduate textbook on the subject. I suspect that in general Sakwa’s politics are a little to the left of mine, but when it comes to things Russian I find that I agree with him 99% of the time. I was rather pleased, therefore, when his latest book Russia’s Futures arrived unprompted in my mailbox recently. I immediately buckled down to reading it, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Russia’s Futures provides readers with a broad survey of the Russian political and economic systems, Russia’s place in the world, the main ideological currents in Russian society, and the like. It’s clearly aimed at a general rather than a specialist audience. As such, it’s more a summary of what Sakwa has concluded from his 30 years of professional studies than a piece of original academic research. Footnotes citing serious academic articles are interspersed with occasional references to the likes of Paul Goble and Russia Insider (there’s balance for you!). Looking at the footnotes, I suspect the influence of Johnson’s Russia List. But Sakwa can be forgiven one or two eccentric references. He knows his stuff, and the result is an impressively even-handed discussion of Russia’s present situation and likely future development.
Sakwa starts out by telling us that Russia’s ‘reality is multi-planed, plural and diverse’. Readers should therefore ‘be aware of the undoubted negative features of contemporary Russia, while remaining alive to how the system has developed in recent years and delivered enormous public goods.’ This pretty much sets the tone for the extremist centrism (or is centrist extremism?) which follows.
Analyzing the Russian political system, Sakwa lays out the theory he has developed elsewhere that Russia has a ‘dual state’. On the one hand, there is the constitutional system; on the other hand, there is the ‘administrative regime’ which is ‘not effectively constrained’ by the former. The constitutional order matters and prevents the system from descending into a dictatorship. But constitutionalism is undermined by a lack of rule of law, corruption, nepotism, and so on. Consequently, Russia is ‘far more than a “kleptocracy” or a personalized autocracy, yet rather less than a functioning, accountable and competitive democracy.’
As for Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, he is a ‘conservative centrist’, as is his regime. Sakwa informs us that, ‘Putin’s statecraft is his ability to draw strength from all of the epistemic blocs but to become dependent on none … incompatible groups and ideas are kept in permanent balance.’ Putin, says Sakwa, ‘acts as the arbiter between elite groups and institutions … Each can participate in policy making and the political process in general, but none can capture the state.’ Sakwa doesn’t use the word ‘corporatist’, but it strikes me that this might be a good way of describing this system. The state has ways of involving all interested parties in the decision making process. Everybody gets a chance to influence government. But it’s done through the office of the presidency, and through extra-constitutional mechanisms, rather than through elected representatives. As Sakwa puts it, ‘Diverse non-constitutional bodies such as the Civic Chamber … act to aggregate policy communities and express societal concerns, but without the overt politicization which is characteristic of parliamentary politics. The presidency is thereby shielded from capture by any one group or faction in society, but works to ensure that none is entirely excluded.’
The result is not entirely undemocratic. As Sakwa says, ‘the Putin system is a fair reflection of the society at large.’ But Sakwa considers this system unsustainable and merely a ‘breathing space’ which ‘will sooner or later give way to something else.’ The system results in centrist policies which balance all the interests within society, but the problem with this centrism is that it ‘thwarts a clear plan for the future … the outcome is stasis’, preventing the kind of structural reforms which Sakwa considers necessary for Russia’s development, especially in the economic sphere.
The Russian economy, Sakwa claims, contains a ‘contradictory amalgam’ of elements of liberalization and state-led economic mobilization. He notes numerous economic achievements, and comments that ‘the Putin system of mutual responsibility has ensured that a good quotient of the rents are directed to socially useful purposes.’ But, as if once again to show his sense of balance, he points also to considerable deficiencies, such as poor protection of property rights and a lack of investment in education and health care. ‘Russia today has clear symptoms of economic dysfunction that can only be resolved through systemic reform.’ Sakwa concludes.
Sakwa’s even-handedness is somewhat less evident in his discussion of Russian foreign policy, though even here he avoids extremes. He is clearly sympathetic to the Russian claim that current East-West tensions are largely the fault of the West. He describes the prevailing Russian foreign policy ideology as ‘liberal statism’ – liberal in the sense of being committed to the basic principles and institutions of the ‘liberal international order’, such as the United Nations, the WTO, international law, and so on; but statist in the sense of emphasizing state sovereignty. According to Sakwa, ‘The cardinal postulate of Russia’s neo-revisionism is commitment to the norms of international society vertically, but resistance to the (hegemonic) practices of the US-led order horizontally.’ In this way, Russia challenges US leadership of the international order, but not the order itself.
Sakwa places all of this within the theoretical framework of ‘neo-modernization’. Classical modernization theory equated modernization with Westernization, and argued that being modern meant adopting Western models of liberalism and democracy. According to Sakwa, ‘The idea of “neo-modernization” challenges classical views while asserting that modernization does have certain universal features, but that these have to be combined with specific national cultural and economic traditions.. … countries can be modern in different ways.’ Russia’s problem, says Sakwa, is that it has been consistently ‘mismodernized’. By contrast, Japan is an example of a country which has managed to modernize while avoiding becoming Westernized. ‘It is this combination that continues to elude Russia’, says Sakwa.
This makes sense, but whereas I agree almost totally with everything Sakwa says, at this point I do find myself having some problems with his thesis. For what is the peculiarly Russian model of modernity which is on offer? Sakwa himself notes that, ‘the model of modernity in Russia today is closer to that of the West than ever before, and there are no fundamental ideological differences.’ Discussing the idea that Russia’s political system is unstable because it is neither one thing nor the other – neither democracy nor authoritarian – Sakwa strongly suggests that moving in the direction of the former is desirable. Likewise, his call for ‘structural economic reform’ strikes me also as a demand for Russia to become more Western. In short, Russia’s ‘neo-modernization’ ends up looking rather like Westernization after all.
At one point Sakwa mentions the Russian conservative philosopher Boris Mezhuev as an example of someone proposing the neo-modernization he has in mind. I recall a conference that Sakwa, Mezhuev and I attended in Moscow a couple of years ago. At this, I pointed out to Mezhuev that I couldn’t tell what it was he that he was proposing for Russia which was in any way different from the Western liberalism he was criticzing. How did his vision of democracy differ from that of Western democracy? As I recall, he failed to provide an answer. And here’s the problem – pushed to say what the unique Russian path to modernity consists of, many of its proponents can’t actually say. They don’t like Westernization, but when pressed they don’t have a concrete alternative to offer.
In the end, therefore, I don’t find the neo-modernization thesis particularly convincing. At heart, I guess, I really am a Francis Fukayama ‘End of History’ type of Western liberal after all. Despite this, however, I strongly recommend Russia’s Futures. There are so many books out there portraying Russia in an absurdly negative light, that it’s deeply refreshing to come across something which is extremist only in its sense of balance. Of course, that conclusion reflects my own bias – I like the book in large part because I agree with it. Extreme Russophobes and extreme Russophiles will no doubt hate it (especially the former, I suspect). But if you have an open mind and you’re looking for a readable introduction to Russian politics, Russia’s place in the world, and Russia’s possible futures, this is as good as you can currently find.